A judge signaled on Tuesday that he would order the release in the coming months of much of the secret testimony in the notorious espionage case against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
But US District Judge Alvin Hellerstein said he would make an exception for a pivotal witness whose questionable testimony helped send Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair: her 86-year-old brother.
The decision on the brother, David Greenglass, came at a Manhattan hearing at which leading historical groups argued that the biggest spy case of the Cold War era was important enough to qualify for a rare exception to secrecy rules protecting grand jury testimony.
Prosecutors had already consented to the unsealing of transcripts for 36 of the 46 grand jury witnesses’ testimonies that were requested by historians. Since the 36 witnesses are dead or gave permission for the disclosure, the judge didn’t bother to address those transcripts on Tuesday and was expected to formalize their release yesterday in a written order.
But in the case of three living witnesses who objected — Greenglass and two lesser figures — the judge said he agreed with the government’s stance that their privacy “overrides the public’s need to know.”
He cited letters to the court from an attorney for Greenglass saying the case still haunts his family.
Greenglass and his wife, Ruth Greenglass, after confessing to being part of a scheme to smuggle atomic secrets to the Soviets, agreed to testify against the Rosenbergs. During the 1951 trial, the couple linked Ethel Rosenberg to the plot by saying they saw her transcribing the stolen research data on a typewriter.
By cooperating, David Greenglass, a wartime machinist in Los Alamos, New Mexico, was spared a possible death sentence and served 10 years in prison. Ruth Greenglass, who died this year, was never charged.
The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953.
Since then, decoded Soviet cables have seemed to confirm that Julius Rosenberg was a spy, but doubts have remained about Ethel Rosenberg’s involvement.
Georgetown University law professor David Vladeck, who represented the historical groups, argued on Tuesday that David Greenglass forfeited his right to keep his testimony secret by “thrusting himself” into the limelight with media interviews in recent years. In the interviews, Greenglass said he made up the trial account about the typewriter to protect his wife and she may have improvised the tale to appease prosecutors.
“If indeed the government was a party to that, then the public needs to know,” Vladeck said.
The judge responded that Greenglass “may be a hypocrite. He may be a liar. ... But does that cause me to release grand jury testimony?”
Afterward, Vladeck still called the judge’s position on the other witnesses “very good news” and predicted that the transcripts would be made public in the fall.
The judge reserved decision regarding the testimony of seven missing Rosenberg witnesses pending further efforts to confirm that they are either dead or will never be located.